Sunday, June 21, 2009

Trip to Japan 1999

June 1999 -- I went to Japan for two weeks as part of a high school student exchange program--with a twist.

I had just finished my sophomore year in college, but I got to go with a group of American high school students, in part because my younger sister was signed up for the trip.

The upshot was that I was the only person in the group to have two years of college-level Japanese under my belt. Which came in handy for the few times that we did not have a Japanese chaperon--especially in the hectic train stations!

Obviously, I have a lot of pictures and awesome memories, but I'll spare you every little detail. Here are the highlights.

We spent the first few days of our trip exploring Kyoto.

One significant thing about Japan: there are temples and shrines everywhere. You might be walking down a busy market street, turn a corner, and BAM! There's a gorgeous temple nestled in lush greenery and tall trees.

Here is one of the more famous ones, the Golden Pavilion Temple (Kinkaku-ji). Our group posed in front of it; that's a twenty-year-old me kneeling on the left.

Notice the second guy from left, with the afro. His hair made him the most popular guy of our group. Even little old ladies on the bus wanted to touch his 'fro.

Here's another temple. This one is part of a large complex of temple buildings on top of a hill in Kyoto, and the views are amazing. I'm very sorry to say that I cannot remember the name of it. It might have been part of Kyomizu-dera.

Here's a dragon water fountain at the entrance to the temple. With the ladle, you are supposed to wash your hands to purify yourself.

I spotted this sign while we were walking the city streets. So cute! I think it had something to do with cleaning up your garbage, but I don't know enough Japanese to translate anything other than the word "yamereon," which means "chameleon." Obviously.

This was a lovely statue in one of the Buddhist temples we visited.

We also went to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, an incredibly sobering experience.

This is Ground Zero, the A-Bomb Dome (once the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall). I stood right here, took this picture, breathed the air... it was incredibly quiet here.

This is one of the many monuments at the park, the Statue of the A-Bomb Children or the Children's Peace Monument. You probably have heard the story of Sadako Sasaki, who believed she would be cured of radiation sickness if she folded 1,000 paper cranes. There are chains of colorful paper cranes surrounding this monument, sent from around the world.

Here is another temple. I believe this one is in Oita, where we finally met up with our host families and began attending high school.

This is a women's toilet in Japan! Fortunately for us, there were usually "western style" toilets available, though sometimes it was only in one stall and we had to take turns using it. None of us were brave enough to try using this Japanese style toilet.

We were like local rock stars; we met the mayor of Oita (who gave us t-shirts that said "I love Oita"!), the high school had a HUGE welcoming ceremony for us, and we even got into the local newspaper. This is very different from the way we Americans treat our exchange students! I've never seen a news article about exchange students visiting here.

Then it was time to start school. We went to a high school in Oita for over a week. Ever wonder why the students in Japan don't have issues with being overweight? Here's one reason: they bike or walk EVERYWHERE.

I rode a bike to school for the first time in my life. Not just a couple miles, either. It was a hardcore up-and-downhill ride, about an hour long, every morning and every night. No matter what the weather.

The school was at the top of an incredibly steep hill. It felt more like a mountain when you were walking up it. We had to leave the bikes at the bike rack, which was at the bottom of the hill.

Up and up and up... The Japanese kids took it in stride, but I thought I was going to die.

OMG where does this hill end???

In Japan, you don't wear outdoor shoes in homes or schools. Once at school, we changed from our regular outdoor shoes to some clog-type shoes that were for indoors only. That's my sis on the right, me on the left.

Here's the view from one of the school balconies (aka hallways). The view was amazing. If only you didn't have to climb up that hill!

Students clean the school during a regular cleaning time each day. There are no janitors. This ensures that students don't litter or mess up the school, because they're the ones who will have to pick it up.

These are the high school "punks." They were fooling around during a break. That kid in the purplish shirt was really daring for violating school dress code! (He put his white shirt back on after the break was over.)

One of the field trips we Americans went on while our Japanese counterparts were stuck in school--we went to a local park! It was really for little kids, but we had a lot of fun. Look at this funny old man sitting on this animal... he let me be in a photo with him. I don't know who he was, but he looks sort of like a baseball coach.

Here was one of the rides--some sort of trolley that you sit on and ride down. I have never seen one of these in the U.S. (at least, not at a public park without any supervision)... maybe because they practically scream "lawsuit" over here.

It had recently rained. My sis bravely rode the thing back over a massive mud puddle.

And here are the monkeys! I can't remember the name of this place, but I think it was something like "Monkey Mountain." There were monkeys everywhere in the park.

The monkeys could go anywhere they wanted and do anything they pleased. Ain't nobody gonna stop them.

Here's a momma monkey and her tiny baby:

There were signs everywhere that said (according to our Japanese hosts) "Don't touch the monkeys," and "Don't feed the monkeys." Apparently, the monkeys could be extremely nasty if they felt like it, up to and including killing us.

But there were some very pretty places in this park, so we ventured bravely in among the monkeys and took some pictures of us in front of big flowery bushes. Here is my sis trying to hold very still and not enrage the monkey in front of her, while still looking happy and relaxed for the camera. Not an easy task.

At the end of our stay, the Japanese school kids held yet another party for us. They drew pictures of us on the board.

There's my sis next to her likeness. And my likeness next to hers. And a big blue bunny saying "Oh--!!"

The trip to Japan was officially my Best. Trip. Ever.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Stupid the bearded dragon

One of my most beloved early pets was a very special bearded dragon.

He was part of a clutch of eggs that were being incubated by the pet store where Byrd worked, until a power failure knocked out the incubator for several hours. Over time, one by one, the eggs buckled and darkened, which meant the baby lizard inside had died. Only three eggs survived, resulting in three lizards.

Byrd took the three lizards home to grow, because they couldn't be sold at the pet store until they were older.

But right away, I noticed something was obviously wrong with one of the lizards. He flapped and flopped around crazily, and his head lolled like a bobblehead doll when he was trying to watch something. He couldn't catch crickets by himself and had to be hand-fed.

So Byrd gave this physically challenged bearded dragon to me to take care of. The vet said the baby lizard would probably die in a few days.

I named the lizard "Stupid," fondly. He had spirit and determination to survive despite the odds against him. At first, I had to force-feed him by jamming baby crickets and soggy lizard pellets into his tiny mouth.

But after a precarious first two weeks, Stupid gained enough strength to start taking the food from my fingers (he had to try over and over to get the food, apparently because he had no coordination, or poor vision, or brain damage).

After seven months, Stupid somehow managed to develop just enough motor function and coordination to catch tiny crickets by himself, as long as he was sitting in a bucket full of them (so even if he missed his mark, there was another cricket underneath). I often took him down to the pet store and let him loose in the baby cricket container so he could get a workout. But I always hand-fed him several times a day to be sure he got the nutrition he needed.

I knew Stupid wouldn't live very long, because he never grew any bigger than a month-old beardy. While his siblings grew to cover the palm of my hand, Stupid still perched on my index finger.

Toward the end of his first year, Stupid started backsliding. He lost the little bit of coordination he had had, and after a while he had trouble with hand-feeding as well. At the very end, I had to force-feed him again. Eventually, his tiny body gave out, and almost exactly a year after he was hatched, Stupid passed away.

To this day, he remains very close to my heart.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pepper and Little Byrd

Ten years ago, Byrd and I lived in a little condo community. One of our neighbors was a single woman who worked all day, and while she was away at work, she let her little dog run loose.

This was both annoying for all the residents and dangerous for the little dog, because it liked to chase cars in the parking lot, bark, and poo everywhere. The woman probably thought her cute little dog slept all day on her front porch, because that's where the dog was when she left, and that's where it was when she came home (it could hear her car coming and would race to her front door to wait for her).

So since I was a college kid at the time, I "adopted" the dog during the day. It got to hang out with me inside while I was home. The first thing I did was give it a bath and brush it, because it smelled terrible and had fleas.

We soon learned that the dog's name was Pepper, because when the woman got home in the evening and discovered her dog was not waiting on the front porch, she started screaming "PEPPER!!! PEPPER!!!" I let Pepper out the back door and he ran around the unit to the front to greet his mom, and they went inside.

This was a routine until Pepper's mom finally figured out where her dog was spending time. Then she would come over and knock on our door each evening and retrieve Pepper from us. It seemed she sort of appreciated the free petsitting.

During this time we also ended up with a baby chicken that was dumped at the pet store where Byrd worked (sound familiar? See Fred's story). We named the chick Little Byrd.

Little Byrd and Pepper became friends. Pepper watched out for LB when he was having some free time in the yard.

LB turned out to be a huge black rooster (sound familiar? See Peepers's story).

Now, the difference between LB and Peepers is that LB could and would fly. He often flew over the condo's backyard fence and into neighboring back yards. Another problem was that we were not really allowed to have fowl in the condos. And LB crowed, too!

So Byrd managed to find a farm that would take not-so-Little Byrd. He *claims* it was a rooster heaven where Little Byrd had lots of hens to call his own. But I'm a bit suspicious, since he makes this farm sound more and more wonderful each time he reassures me that he did not send LB to be made into someone's dinner.

Monday, June 15, 2009

75 seconds of drama

Last night, on the eve of my 30th birthday, Byrd and I were driving home from a nice dinner with family. We were chatting about nothing in particular when a sudden white flare lit the dark road in front of us. Sparks and debris rained down from above, and cars on both sides of the road hit their brakes.

An electric transformer on a power pole had just exploded.

I think most people have seen this happen from time to time. I've seen it three or four times myself. You get a quick adrenaline rush as your brain tries to determine whether all this sudden light and noise constitutes a potential danger, and then it subsides as the sparks vanish and the ceramic pieces come to rest impotently on the ground.

So I said, "Hmm."

And Byrd said, "Hmm."

And we waited for the driver in front of us to proceed. Which he did almost immediately, having determined that the shower of ceramic pieces from the transformer had ceased, and no longer posed a threat to his vehicle's shiny finish.

Then it was just Byrd and me on the dark road, and as we reached the spot where the sparks had fallen, we both saw baby flames jump up from the dry grass on the side of the road.

In Texas in the summer, flames in grass are BAD. And these flames were in grass near an old wood fence surrounding someone's weedy, dry, overgrown backyard near their house at the edge of a neighborhood.

I said, "Crap." Byrd said, rather obviously, "Gotta put that out."

I had my seat belt off before Byrd even stopped the car. We both darted out to where the fire was rapidly building. Byrd took a smaller section of flames, while I tackled a larger section nearer the passenger side of the car.

I've never stamped out a fire before, but surprisingly, it came naturally to me. Who knew? I suppose it's instinctual.

Byrd finished stamping out his part and came over to me. "Stomp faster," he instructed as he brought his tennis shoe heedlessly down on the crackling fire.

"I'm wearing flip flops," I said pointedly. I could feel the heat on the top of my foot.

"Oh yeah," he said. He helped me finish off the rest of the flames with his size 13 shoes. From the birth of the flames, it took barely over a minute for us to put them out with our feet.

After a brief rest to make sure nothing was going to re-ignite, Byrd and I exchanged casual high-fives and headed home, our shoes smelling faintly of charred grass.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Fred the duck

I'm not sure I can do justice to Fred's story, but I'll give it a shot. Be warned, a few parts might be a tad risque for young uns.

Byrd and I used to work at a pet store that did not sell birds. That didn't stop people from dumping birds at the store, however. And one morning, Byrd found this little guy in a cardboard box at the front door when he opened the store:

Byrd called me up (I didn't work at the store anymore at that point), and I came and took the little duckling home, gave him the name Fred, and introduced him to his new extended family.

He took a liking to everyone right away, of course. Here he is meeting Felanie and one of the prairie dogs.

"Are you my mother?"

When he was little, we kept him inside. He hung out with the prairie dogs a lot. They groomed each other.

I let him splash around and practice swimming in an old, unused tub in the vacant bathroom. This was during the remodel, so yeah, it looks pretty gross and tacky. Perfect for duck baths.

Fred grew really big, really fast.

You can see his flight feathers growing in...

The prairie dogs were still pals with him, even though he was huge.

I looked up his breed at around this time and discovered he was a white Pekin duck. A totally ordinary type of duck that you can buy at any local feed store.

Finally, when his adult feathers had all grown in, Fred was ready to move outside. I got him a baby pool to swim in. (Again, this was during the remodel, so our yard was a wreck--sorry.)

Awww, so that was a cute little story about a duckling, right?

And then Fred grew up. And developed a bad habit of biting and humping every animal he could grab.

"I'm a love machine"

This included the feet and legs of all the humans in the household AND the feet, faces, stomachs, ears, and necks of our poor, bewildered pit bulls.

I'm sure this was actually a normal, typical behavior for a hand-reared adult male duck. But of course, up until this point, I'd only ever seen ducks at municipal duck ponds.

Fred quickly gained a reputation as a yard shark. He would stand casually near his intended victim, quacking quietly as he strategized, then suddenly swoop in for the kill.

Make no mistake, his bites hurt pretty badly, but he was so darn cute that it was hard to be mad. The dogs soon learned to run like hell when lovesick Fred made the scene.

I have literally an hour of compiled home video that looks a lot like this:

We were pretty clueless what to do about this. I thought Fred might be happier living with other ducks at the nearby duck pond. So I took him on a few visits to get him used to the ducks.

To this day, I think that some of the park visitors thought--when they saw me leave the pond with Fred--that I was stealing a duck.

But while Fred didn't really mind the visits to the pond, when we tried to leave him there for real, he flipped out.

"Breathe deep. They didn't abandon you, they're just... oh god, they did!!!"

"Where's the car... where's the car...?"

"Hell no, I won't go in the water. Take me home! NOW!"

We really did drive away and leave him there at the park, but when we turned around to check and confirm that he would be A-okay... he was marching determinedly through the parking lot, headed for the street. Looking for us.

I could just imagine him getting hit by a car while searching for us. We took him back home and decided to go with Plan B.

We got a female duck that he could shower his "affections" on.

This was back before the days of widespread high speed Internet and all the online search tools we take for granted nowadays. Even Petfinder was a pretty newfangled thing. So duck adoption didn't really occur to us; instead, we went to the local feed store and picked out an adult female Pekin duck from their cramped, dirty cages. I picked the most pathetic one.

Daphne was a shy, quiet duck. She could barely walk and didn't know how to swim, and she was filthy from being in close quarters with two dozen other ducks. A bunch of her tail and wing feathers were broken. When I set her down in the backyard for the first time, she didn't move. She didn't understand any of it.

None of this mattered to Fred. He fell in love with Daphne instantly. Our toes became old news, much to our relief.

And Fred turned out to be a sensitive fellow after all. He didn't shower attention on Daphne; he gave her the space and time she needed to adjust to this strange new world. After she had learned to waddle around, he put on amazing splashing displays for her in the baby pool while she watched from the ground.

Fred and I worked together to teach Daphne to swim. Each day, I held her afloat in the baby pool for a short while, letting her paddle her weak legs. Fred spent hours and hours floating and splashing, demonstrating the joys of the water, as if to encourage her. Finally, one day she walked up the wooden plank herself and eased into the water. Fred honked and splashed so loudly I ran outside prepared to chase off a predator, but after seeing Daphne in the water by herself, I cheered along with Fred.

One day we had a huge rainstorm that flooded our entire yard. This was a real treat for the ducks! They had their own private lake for two days.

Having gotten over his desire to bite and hump everyone all the time, Fred learned to play fetch with dogs. He couldn't bring the ball back, but he ran with the group and fought for--and usually won--the ball. Then he would push it all over the yard in a victory celebration.

I sincerely regret not getting that on camera.

Daphne never got over her shyness, but she didn't like to go far from Fred. So she hung around while Fred and the dogs played fetch.

Fred was pretty famous among the neighbors. Whenever they had visitors over, you can bet they would take the visitors out to peer through the chain link fence and see what Fred was up to.

Even though we loved the ducks, we still felt they would be happier living somewhere with a big pond to swim in. The baby pool just didn't seem sufficient. So we kept our ears open for a good home.

One day Byrd met a nice older couple who had just bought a big piece of land with a pond, and wanted some ducks to swim around in the pond. So Fred and Daphne went to live with these people.

This all happened about nine years ago, and I'm sure Fred is gone from this world by now. But that crazy duck won't ever be forgotten.